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Pakistan power play

January 26, 2010

Pakistan's complicated relationship with Islamic militant groups, its internal and external strategic aims and its need for Western aid and support is hindering progress in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

A Taliban fighter and the flag of Pakistan
Pakistan both fights and supports the Taliban insurgency

More than eight years on from the US-led invasion of Afghanistan which forced the Taliban from power and sent its al Qaeda allies into hiding, the somewhat naïve objective of a democratic and stable Afghanistan free of fundamentalists and terrorists seems as far away as ever.

The Taliban is resurgent, al Qaeda has returned and the Western-backed Afghan government has even less credibility after the chaos of last year's fraudulent presidential elections continues to reverberate. Western military planners appear to be at a loss as to how to end an increasingly difficult war which looked to have been won in the early months of 2002.

Representatives of those nations involved with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) meet with officials from the Afghan government this week in London in an attempt to find a way out of this seemingly intractable conflict. One of the most important aspects of any discussion will be Pakistan's role in ending the counter-insurgency and its potential involvement in the stabilization of a post-war Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long been seen as the key to success against the Taliban insurgency. While the Taliban has returned in significant numbers to its heartlands in the southern provinces of Afghanistan, the tribal areas along the Afghan border inside Pakistan are accepted as being the main center of operations from which the insurgency is planned and executed.

Mixed messages from Pakistan's tribal region offensive

Pakistan Army troops prepare to leave for patrolling
Pakistan's offensive has made gains in South WaziristanImage: AP

In what appears to be a concerted effort to eliminate the Taliban in the restive tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, Pakistan launched an on-going military offensive last October. Pakistan has since claimed victories in South Waziristan where its army has dismantled Taliban bases and infrastructure while expelling thousands of their fighters from the region over which they once had complete control.

On the surface, it appears that Pakistan is making good on the promises it made to the Bush administration in the first years of the war when then President Pervez Musharraf agreed to help in the 'war on terror' in exchange for financial and military aid from the United States.

Pro-government Taliban in north remain free

However, while the operation in South Waziristan has seen some positive results, this is offset by Pakistan's apparent reluctance to target insurgents who infiltrate into Afghanistan from North Waziristan to attack the foreign forces across the border.

So far, the Pakistani Army has only hit militants which it holds responsible for attacks within Pakistan, leaving thousands of pro-government Taliban fighters in North Waziristan to freely cross the border to strike NATO troops on the other side.

The complicated involvement of Pakistan both in fighting and facilitating the insurgency is based on its long-term internal and external strategic policies as well as its concern over its economic interests.

History of cultivating militant groups for own ends

A taliban fighter outside a Taliban office in Swat
The Taliban operates freely from North WaziristanImage: Abdul Sabooh

Pakistan, a country which has been ruled by military dictatorships for most of its 62 years of existence, has long fostered a policy of using Islamic militant groups for its own ends, specifically in its proxy war with India over Kashmir. These militant groups, both trained and funded by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) - Pakistan's secret service, have in turn found their own battles to fight, namely the jihad against Western forces in Afghanistan.

"It's an open secret that the military and intelligence services still have a hand in supporting what they call their strategic assets," Dr. Farzana Shaikh, the director of the Pakistan Study Group at the Royal Institute of International Affairs Chatham House in London, told Deutsche Welle. "These are mainly groups attached to the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and are groups which Pakistan could use in the event of a Western withdrawal from Afghanistan to ensure their interests there are not compromised.

The fear is that India will expand the influence its been gaining since 9/11 in Afghanistan, and Pakistan sees these Taliban-affiliated groups in North Waziristan as a handy bunch to have around and so they are very reluctant to take on these groups who could be assets in the future."

Read more about Pakistan's dilemma

Anti-terror partner and Taliban supporter

When Pakistan joined the US 'war on terror,' it found that it was under pressure to fight the very groups that its intelligence service had cultivated. It was then faced with the dangerous balancing act of doing enough in the fight against militants to secure US support, while allowing the militants to continue their operations as part of Pakistan's external strategic policies.

Pakistani supporters of the religious parties alliance burn a US flag during a rally
Pakistan's support for the US has seen a rise in violenceImage: AP

In recent years, Pakistan's support for the US has led to some militants turning on their master; one of the factors behind the increased levels of terrorism within Pakistan which have made the Pakistani government’s balancing act even more difficult.

"These military operations in the tribal areas are very controversial in Pakistan and there is great resentment amongst the public," Dr. Shaikh said. "Many see the Pakistani Army fighting a battle at the behest of the US and fighting a war that the US would rather not get involved with. The military and government is very concerned about the opposition and are wary of inflaming the situation further."

Pakistan hedging its bets over Afghanistan's post-war direction

Now, more than ever, Pakistan sees covert support for the Taliban as way of hedging its bets in any post-conflict Afghanistan. Experts within Pakistan have serious doubts over the prospects of the US winning the war and see the Taliban as a useful future ally to protect its interests in Afghanistan against its arch-rival India.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
Afghan President Hamid Karzai enjoys India's supportImage: AP

"If the US and its allies withdraw from Afghanistan after failing to defeat the Taliban, then there is a chance that Afghanistan will return to the regional rivalries and divisions which were prevalent during the 1990s," Jeremy Binnie, senior analyst for terrorism and insurgence at Jane's Defense, told Deutsche Welle. "This could leave the region open to Central Asian powers who may take advantage of this situation to wage proxy wars against each other. Having the Taliban onside could help Pakistan confront India should it try and exert greater influence there in any potential power vacuum."

India has been working to retain its significant influence over Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his allies from the former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance ever since the Taliban was ousted in 2002. Pakistan's support for the Taliban is seen as a way of countering India's push for dominance in Central Asia, much in the same way as the ISI-sponsored militants fought to stop India claiming Kashmir.

Officially, of course, Pakistan has not acknowledged any of these factors, claiming instead that its domestic terror problem and financial dire straits mean that it cannot do any more than it is to push on against the Taliban and totally eradicate the militants from its border regions. Despite pressure from the US the Pakistani military has ruled out expanding its current operation into North Waziristan for at least a year.

Fears over Taliban's Pakistani sanctuary

A Pro-Taliban militant stands guard at a shrine
Taliban, safe in Pakistan, may stage a final push for KabulImage: AP

Some analysts fear that the Taliban may take the opportunities offered by the relative freedom afforded them in North Waziristan to retreat from US troop surges in Afghanistan and bide their time until Western forces begin their troop reductions in 2011. Experts are concerned that the Taliban will then choose this moment to return when troop levels are at their lowest to fight their way into a deal which could see them return to power in some capacity in the Afghan government.

Only a huge change in fortunes for Western forces in Afghanistan could change Pakistan's decision, forcing it to choose its tentative allegiance with the West over its covert support for the militants.

If the West wants Pakistan to make a choice now to influence its own chances of success in Afghanistan, it is faced with very few options as Dr. Shaikh explained.

"The West has its hands tied to a certain extent and Pakistan knows this," she said. "Any successful solution in Afghanistan needs Pakistan on side. The US has tried the 'carrot and stick' approach with threats to cut aid coupled with promises of huge economic assistance if Pakistan severs ties with the Taliban but this hasn't and will not work. This is down to the fear of India and when the US calls India a force for stability in the region, this only strengthens Pakistan's resolve not to cut its assets loose."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge